At Films Abroad, Why Do I Laugh Alone?


Film Friday

Vic: What film are we talking about?

Lin: Does it matter what film?

Vic: Of course it does.

Lin: You choose then.  Friday night.  Not in a foreign language, ok.  You don’t go to the movies to read.

                                                                                Caryl Churchill, Cloud Nine

 In the spirit of summer travel, my Ljubljana colleague Jason Blake sent me this delightful essay on subtitling and other cross-cultural movie viewing experiences.  His stories bring back some of my own memories—for instance, attending silent Buster Keaton and Ben Turpin movies in the Paris Cinematheque when I was 13 (1964) and seeing titles that were written in Polish, Czech, or wherever else curator Henri Langlois had managed to salvage prints.  Also of being the only person laughing in a Ljubljana theater when I was watching Jim Jarmusch’s independent film Stranger than Paradise.  Enjoy Jason’s piece and, if it brings to mind memories of your own, please send them along.  Jason is the author of Canadian Hockey Literature (Univ. of Toronto, 2010).  

By Jason Blake, University of Ljubljana, Department of English

Here’s one for the bucket list: watch a subtitled Hollywood film in a foreign country.

This watching is list-worthy because you will learn something about yourself and your culture. Even if the flick is Sex and the City or some other puffball comedy, I guarantee an educational and entertaining experience. Not exactly drinking champagne in Champagne or running with the bulls in Pamplona, this is somewhere between learning a foreign language and once, just once, pampering yourself with an obscenely fine restaurant meal.

Of course, not all of Europe subtitles films, and most of the larger countries opt for “synchronization” or dubbing. This means that if you are in France, Italy, Germany or Poland, just finding a subtitled film can be a challenge – though it will still be a lot easier than finding one in North America. Scandinavia and many of the smaller countries go for subtitles, and this is why young people in those countries speak fluid, slangy English. Credit or blame years of movies and television for this second language proficiency.

As a student in Berlin I once climbed suspicious-looking stairs up to what was advertised as a third-floor English-language cinema. I was sure those stairs would in fact lead to a sleazy tattoo parlor or something even edgier. But it was indeed a tiny cinema, with room for at least two dozen people. A half-secret den. Or “a violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye,” thought I. I was number 32 so there was no room with the in-crowd that night.

A year or two later, in Paris, I felt very arch and underdressed when a friend led me to see Gus Van Sant’s 1994 Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (en anglais) in a building older than Manhattan. The non-obviousness of these movie houses provided a sense of occasion and discovery, like hunting down a garage sale or finally locating the car keys.

I felt less guilty about going to American movies instead of visiting a museum or concert. Umberto Eco has written critically – I think in Travels in Hyperreality, or maybe How to Travel with a Salmon – about this cultural imperative. Why is it that people who don’t visit museums or galleries back home feel like they ought to in Europe? What’s wrong with seeing a Hollywood movie when you’re in Europe?

Europe is partly to blame because it makes many cultural events affordable. In Vienna ten years ago, I purchased a standing room ticket to see Giusseppe Sinopoli conduct Schubert’s 9th symphony (“The Great”). It cost me maybe eight bucks, less than a music-less afternoon tour of the same concert hall.

The concert, incidentally, was delayed by two minutes as a busload of Asian businessmen stormed into my area. The second movement was delayed by two minutes as they all stormed out again – they had been into the Musikverein, caught fifteen minutes of sublimity, and they could blow that joint. I was tickled by this brashly sincere exit. The other listeners looked horrified, none more so than the many Asians who were there to, well, listen.

I cannot find the relevant Eco quotation (something about bored tourists’ breath destroying Old Master paintings in the Louvre), so let me provide a runner-up passage from Travels in Hyperreality. Here Eco lampoons the supposed division between high culture and entertainment, the idea that “show business is amusement, faintly culpable, whereas a lecture, a Beethoven symphony” and the like are “boring experiences (and therefore ‘serious’).” High culture can even be punishment, since “the son who gets a bad grade at school is strictly forbidden by his parent to go to a rock concert, but may attend a cultural event (which, on the contrary, will supposedly be good for him).”

Back to subtitles at the border between popular culture and high culture. In the classic comedy series Cheers, Sam flaunts an attractive new girlfriend before Diane, the character played by Shelley Long. He hopes to inspire jealousy. Sam and New-Girlfriend discuss which film they should go see. The dialogue, as I remember it:

Sam: “Why don’t we see that new Australian movie?”

New-Girlfriend: “No, no… I hate subtitles.”

Diane: (Lots and lots of high pitched laughter).

Diane’s overly-loud laughter mocks New-Girlfriend’s gaffe, but it also flaunts her own highbrow tastes. “This is me laughing at your stupidity and manque de goût,” she says. As a cultural connoisseur, she knows what subtitled films are all about. In North America, saying “I like watching subtitled movies” is a coy indication of aesthetic discretion, and the reader of your personal ad will immediately interpret this to mean Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman and other luminaries.

The view of subtitling I grew up with needs to be adjusted when I watch Seks v mestu 2 (Sex in the City 2) in Slovenia. There was no value added to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (IMDB rating: 3.9) just because it had subtitles.

Recently I wrote about an imitation-Starbucks that operated briefly in Ljubljana – a classic case of “classy” Europe badly imitating “trashy” America. I did not mention that I feel comfortable in such spaces, much like the hero of Bill Gaston’s novel The Good Body. In that novel Bobby Bonaduce, an aging athlete, enrolls in a creative writing program in small-town New Brunswick (but really to attempt to re-join the family he abandoned years before).

Bobby searches for a stylish and petit café on the main drag before ultimately fleeing to a mall. “Sad to end up in a food court,” he thinks:

He’d cruised the town hungry, passing little pasta parlours and coffee bars, for some reason not stopping. Why not just accept it as a comfort that you feel at home in a food court? In this mall, with this coffee, you were anywhere on the continent.”

In fact, not just the North American continent.  Anywhere in the moneyed world.

Modern movie theatres offer the same placelessness as the food court, and this is something I love. There is nothing like the movies to sweep you up and make you forget yourself and where you are. For the length of the film, you are not at home but in New York, Chicago or Anytown, USA. The multiplex lets me breathe the same zipless, globalized air as in a shopping centre in Munich or Milan or Zagreb, perhaps even Tokyo or Seoul.

This week, there are ten films showing at the local multiplex in Celje. All in English and all subtitled, with the exception of Shrek za vedno – 3D – sinhronizirano – for the kids. The others are Nowhere Boy – Zgodba o Johnu Lennonu, Perzijski princ, the aforementioned Seks v mestu 2 and some less transparent translations. They used to show “foreign,” that is, European films, but they seem to have given up.

I remain glued to the belief that we overestimate cultural differences, and when I’m in a movie theatre, the popcorn-cola-chocolate bar deal confirms this credo. Mars bar and Coca Cola in hand, I could be back in Toronto, or even out there in the sticks with a certain Ernst Kibble from Paul Quarrington’s final novel, The Ravine:

Ernst Kibble, in case you are wondering, is a man who lives in, I don’t know, a rabbit warren in Northern Ontario. He watches [my TV show] Padre faithfully, but has no interest in the show other than the spotting and reporting of historical inaccuracies. He’s the supreme bullet-counter. You know what I mean, right? For example, in the crowd at the Galaxy Odeon there were at least four kids who, upon commencement of any gunfight in the Old West, would start counting aloud the bullets fired. If there was ever a seventh bullet discharged from a six-shooter these little creatures would howl derisively.

Slovenian bullet-counters loudly point out mistakes in the subtitles, which is somewhat annoying. (Impressive, though. Even in supposedly bilingual Canada, I can’t imagine a random group of Anglophone movie-goers critiquing translation nuances in Denys Arcand’s Invasions barbares.) It is, however, no worse or more unusual than a whispering neighbor at a North American theatre.

So everything feels “the same.” But then my reactions to the film, which differ from those of my co-watchers, remind me that I’m somewhere else. There is a difference between pretending to be in New York when you’re in Toronto, and pretending to be in New York when you’re in Celje or Saarbrücken.

Sometimes I can immediately put my finger on why I’m laughing while those around me remain silent. I forget which movie was my first in the newish Celje multiplex. I do remember the brilliantly succinct trailer for the 2001 French film Tanguy: “My name is Tanguy, I am 28 years old, and I still live with my parents.”

That’s it. Shorter than the automated request to turn off our cell phones. And yet it transferred a ton of information: adults should cut the cord, move out, experience the world. Tanguy is culturally defective. I laughed for three full minutes at the brilliant brevity of this. My wife – who, through marital attrition, is more of two worlds than I am – knew why I was laughing, knew why the others were silent, and was convinced I was provoking her and the rest of the audience. Slovenians, even those who have the means, do not move out. Ever, it seems.

I sometimes feel more insecure about laughing, but I have never been good at muffling it. I saw Philadelphia in Bratislava just after Czechoslovakia split up (I suddenly had to buy two bloody visas). You may not remember any laughs in that ordinary but important look at AIDS and discrimination, but I do. I remember because I was the only one guffawing at the few comic lines, and I remember heads turning to look at the insensitive weirdo laughing at this serious film.

I laugh alone most often when I get a reference or allusion that the others do not. Usually this is American pop culture. That was the case with my Bratislava Philadelphia when Denzel Washington admits to having “cried when the Phillies won the Pennant.” (The translator in me demands an aside here. “Pennant” is a tricky one: if the Slovakian wordsmith went literal, the audience got “little flag” and no laughs; if not, there was the half-translation “championship.” More accuracy would kill the line through length: “I cried when the Phillies won the little flag indicating regular season prowess in one of two Major League Baseball leagues, which is not the same as winning it all.” Too much for fast-moving sub-titles.)

At other times, being out of step with my fellow viewers has been unexpected. Watching Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in a Slovenian review cinema, I figured Kubrick had found his ideal audience. Slovenia does not drown in optimism, and that film’s morbidity is unsurpassed. Once again, however, I laughed alone. I was surprised, but also disturbed, at not seeing the reaction I had expected. I thought I had my new surroundings figured out.

I recently translated a series of letters written by August von Hallerstein, an 18th century Jesuit who was the first person from Slovenian lands to live and work in China. He felt he was on a mission from God; the Chinese court just wanted western astronomy, a Jesuit niche at the time.

In a dour moment, the usually-chipper Hallerstein writes, “It is incredible what variety and difference I have had to endure and suffer on my way here.” It would be absurd for me to say something similar about my way to, and life in, Europe and European cinemas because on the whole “the variety and difference” here have been minimal. In my real life, I usually do not laugh alone.

The fact that my Canadian and Slovenian worlds usually do work in harmony adds to the sense of confusion when they clash. Difference is most unsettling when you expect sameness. Especially in Celje’s comfy new North American-style movie seats – complete with drink-holder in the armrest – it is easy to believe that you’re back at home. But then you laugh alone, loudly, and are tolled back to your sole self as your solitary laughter rings out. Even bullet-counters aren’t rude enough to explain that in New York or Chicago or Kalamazoo or Toronto everyone would be laughing.



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  1. Barbara
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    A similar experience can be had by watching “Iron Chef” on the Cooking Channel (the original Japanese version). It is partially sub-titles (Chairman Kaga) and partially voice-over but the voice-over is close to a literal translation. Great fun! Untranslated is the Chairman’s signature “Allez cuisine!” which my limited French translates as “Let’s go food!:”

  2. Farida
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    On the converse side of this wonderful essay, I sometimes feel when I’m watching foreign movies subtitled in English that I’m missing out on a significant amount of not only the content but the texture of a conversation. For this reason, I find myself watching the faces of actors in these movies more than I would in an English language film.

    Some movies have peculiarly brief subtitles, as if a beleaguered translator had decided it was futile trying to get all the ‘meaning’ into subtitles. So you have a rich scene full of color, intense looks, a wordy exchange and then three spare sentences in the subtitles!! Unfortunately I cannot name any particular films right now.

    Here at home in the poorest areas of the city there are no cinemas but video halls. They play movies on video or dvd projected onto a screen in a one room structure, while ONE individual (always a man) translates the entire movie live!! I’ve driven or walked past some of these places and always smile when I here the animated translator relaying action/emotion/dialogue to the movie watchers.

    I think it really requires creativity and humour to do this work. I’ve never been inside but I’m told that some of these men have grown a following of their fans. I should add that the translators embrace what might be described as a large amount of imagination and personal discretion in their interpretation of dialogue and events on the screen!

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted August 1, 2010 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    I have had to close the comments section down for this post because of a spam attack. If you have a comment you’d like to add, send it to me at rrbates[at]smcm[dot]edu and I will post it for you.


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